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review 2017-12-31 22:57
Western Civilization to 1500
Western Civilization to 1500 (College Outline) - Walther Kirchner

The story of Western Civilization centers in Europe but begins over 8000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt and seems like a daunting task to cover in less than 300 pages even if one only goes to the end of the Middle Ages.  Western Civilization to 1500 by Walther Kirchner is a survey of the rise of society from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt through the Greeks and Romans, the Middle Ages, and the beginning of the European Renaissance.

 

Kirchner spends less than 30 pages covering the Fertile Crescent and Egypt through 3500 years of historical development before beginning over 110 pages on Greco-Roman history and the last 130 pages are focused on the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.  This division clearly denotes Kirchner’s focus on Europe in this Western Civilization survey, though one cannot fault him for this as even now knowledge of the first three and half millennia of the historical record is nothing compared to the Greco-Roman sources, yet Kirchner never even mentioned the Bronze Age collapse and possible reasons for its occurrence.  The highlight of the survey is a detailed historical events of Greece and Roman, especially the decline of the Republic which was only given broad strokes in my own Western Civ and World History classes in high school and college.  Yet, Kirchner’s wording seems to hint that he leaned towards the Marxist theory of history, but other wording seemed to contradict it.  Because this was a study aid for college students in the early 1960s, this competing terminology is a bit jarring though understandable.  While the overall survey is fantastic, Kirchner errors in some basic facts (calling Harold Godwinson a Dane instead of an Anglo-Saxon, using the term British during the Hundred Year’s War, etc.) in well-known eras for general history readers making one question some of the details in eras the reader doesn’t know much about.  And Kirchner’s disparaging of “Oriental” culture through not only the word Oriental but also the use of “effeminate” gives a rather dated view of the book.

 

This small volume is meant to be a study aid for students and a quick reference for general readers, to which it succeeds.  Even while Kirchner’s terminology in historical theory and deriding of non-European cultures shows the age of the book, the overall information makes this a good reference read for any well-read general history reader.

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review 2017-03-30 00:40
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea (Hinges of History #4)
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter - Thomas Cahill

The foundations of what we call Western culture today seemingly sprung from one place, Greece, yet that is not the entire truth.  Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, the fourth volume of Thomas Cahill’s Hinges of History, examines and explains the structure of Greek society and ideas as well as the reasons why it has permeated so much of what we know of Western culture.  But Cahill’s answer to why the Greeks matter is two-fold.

 

Over the course of 264 pages of text, Cahill looks at all the features of Greek culture that made them so different from other ancient cultures.  Through the study of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Cahill examined the Greek’s view of war and honor in their grand war epic then how the same man expressed how the Greek’s expressed their feelings.  The contradiction of the Homeric works is part of a larger theme that Cahill explores in Greek poetry beyond Homer, politicians and playwrights, philosophers, and artists.  Throughout each chapter, Cahill examines what the Greeks did differently than anyone else as well as relate examples that many will know.  Yet Cahill reveals that as time went on the Greeks own culture started to swallow itself until stabilized by the Romans who were without the Greek imagination and then merged with newly developing Christian religion that used Greek words to explain its beliefs to a wider world; this synthesis of the Greco-Roman world and Judeo-Christian tradition is what created Western thought and society that we know today.

 

Cahill’s analysis and themes are for the general reader very through-provoking, but even for someone not well versed in overall Greek scholarship there seems to be something missing in this book.  Just in comparing previous and upcoming volumes of Cahill’s own series, this book seems really short for one covering one of the two big parts of Western Civilization.  Aside from the two chapters focused around the Homeric epics, all the other chapters seemed to be less than they could be not only in examples but also in giving connections in relevance for the reader today.

 

For the Western society in general, the Greeks are remembered for their myths, magnificent ruins, and democracy.  Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea does reveal that ancient Greece was more than that and why a culture millennia old matters to us today.  While not perfect, this book is at least a good read for the general reader which may be what Cahill is aiming for but for those more well read it feels lacking once finished.

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review 2017-03-08 02:33
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 2 of 3)
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2 - D.J. Boorstin,Gian Battista Piranesi,Edward Gibbon,John B. Bury

The second volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 27 through 48 of the author’s vast magnum opus.  Beginning with the reign of Gratian and ending with the reconquests of Heraclius in 628 A.D., Gibbons relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments that saw the ultimate split of the Roman Empire, the fall of the West, and the continuance of Roman tradition in the East centered in Constantinople before glancing at the lives of the next 60 emperors of Byzantium over the next 600 years.

 

The deterioration of the Rome picks up with the reign of Gratian and his eventual overthrow leading to the unification of the Empire under Theodosius the Great before its finale split with the inheritance of his sons and then their successors over the next 50+ years.  Throughout the era of House of Theodosius, the various barbarian tribes made inroads into the Western Empire which included two sacks of Rome itself by the Visigoths and Vandals, as the long ineffectual reign of Honorius and his successors allowed the Empire to slip out of their fingers.  In the vacuum arose the genesis of future European states such as England, France, and Spain while Italy declined in population and political cohesion as the Pope began to fill not only a religious but political role.

 

The Eastern Emperors in Constantinople, unlike their family and colleagues in the West, were able to keep their domain intact through military force or bribes to turn away.  The bureaucratic framework established by Constantine and reformed by Theodosius was used to keep the Eastern Empire thriving against barbarian incursion and Persian invasions while creating a link to the Roman past even as the eternal city fell from its greatness.  Yet as the Eastern Emperors kept alive the Roman imperial tradition while continually orienting it more towards Greek cultural heritage, the internal conflicts of Christianity became a hindrance to social and imperial stability leading to rebellions of either a local or statewide nature or allowing foreign powers to invade.

 

This middle volume of Gibbon’s monumental work is divided in two, the first focusing on the fall of the Western Empire and the second on how the Eastern Empire survived through various struggles and for a brief time seemed on the verge of reestablishing the whole imperium.  Yet throughout, Gibbon weaves not only the history of Rome but also the events of nomadic peoples as far away at China, the theological controversies within Christianity, and the numerous other treads to create a daunting, yet compete look of how Rome fell but yet continued.

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review 2016-12-21 13:20
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 1 of 3)
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1 - Edward Gibbon,Daniel J. Boorstin

The first volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers the first 26 chapters of the author’s epic historical work.  Beginning with the death of Domitian and ending with Theodosius I’s treaty with the Goths and early reign,  Gibbon’s spans nearly 300 years of political, social, and religious history on how the great empire of antiquity slowly began to fade from the its greatest heights.

 

The history of the decline of Rome actually begins by showing the nearly century long period of rule of the “Five Good Emperors” as Gibbon shows the growth of absolute power of the Principate was governed by able and intelligent men.  With succession of Commodus Gibbon illustrated what the power of the Principate would do for an individual who was a corrupt and tyrannical ruler.  Gibbon’s then examines the political and military fallout of the death of Commodus with the declaration of five emperors in less than a year and rise of the Severan dynasty by conquest.  Gibbon reveals underlining causes of era of the ‘Barracks Emperors’ and what historians call, “the Crisis of the Third Century”.

 

With the ascension of Diocletian and through him the rise of the House of Constantine, Gibbon explores the political and bureaucratic reforms began and developed that would eventually divide the empire in his view.  After Constantine’s rise to sole emperor, Gibbon then delves into the early history of Christianity before its adoption by the founder of Constantinople.  Beginning with Constantine, the last half of this particular volume as the history and theological developments of Christianity as a central narrative as one of the contributing factors of the decline of the Roman Empire.

 

Although the description above might make one pause at starting the heavy work, Gibbon’s style and prose make history come alive with every word and gives the reader a sense of the grand scale of historical forces while not overwhelming them.  While every reader will have their own verdict on if Gibbon’s arguments and interruptions of history are correct, each avid history lover will find this opening volume of Gibbon’s magnum opus an engaging beginning in examining how one of the foundation stones of Western Civilization came to its political end while passing on its laws and culture to Europe.

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review 2016-11-29 00:47
Desire of the Everlasting Hills (Hinges of History #3)
Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus - Thomas Cahill

The hinge in history that has been the central pillar of Western civilization is not a cultural change nor a particular people but one man, Jesus of Nazareth.  Thomas Cahill explores the developments of thought before and after Jesus in Desire of the Everlasting Hills through the lens of Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures, his mother Mary, Paul, Luke, Early Christians, and John to reveal how one life both continued and changed the progression of Western thought.

 

Over the course of 320 pages, Thomas Cahill focused on Jesus of Nazareth as the central figure in the West.  However from the outset Cahill makes it clear that the role of Jesus is how others perceived him both during his life and after his time on Earth.  While following Jesus during his ministry, Cahill highlighted the essential Jewishness of Jesus’ message and how some considered his message unrealistic while others found hope.  After Jesus’ time on Earth, a phrase I must use since Cahill does not state one way or another on the event of the Resurrection save mentioning it, the essence of his divinity was shaped by Paul’s Jewish perspective, Luke’s gentile perspective, and John the Evangelist’s intimate perspective.  Cahill’s conclusion is that while Jesus is central to the West, the West as a whole has essentially ignored his teachings but a small few due resulting in the slow but development of the ideas that define Western civilization.

 

While Cahill’s analysis and themes are a thought provoking read, I did have some serious issues.  The first is the same as in his previous book, The Gift of the Jews, which is in some of Cahill’s interpretation and subsequent logical construction of his evidence whether through scripture or an analysis of non-Biblical sources to weave his thesis.  The second is partially related and that is Cahill tries to weave a middle course between Jesus as man and Jesus as divine without really take a stand either way.  While objectivity can be commended, the book read as a Christian trying too hard to look discuss Jesus from a secular point of view.

 

Regardless of one’s view of Jesus of Nazareth, no one can deny that he is the central figure of West.  Thomas Cahill attempts to bring forth Jesus through the view of those around him and how they interpreted his life and teachings.  While Desire of the Everlasting Hills is not a perfect book, it is thought-provoking in viewing Jesus of Nazareth back in the first century AD and into today’s increasing secular society.

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